A Matter of Choice
Two weeks ago, I walked into my office at 7:05 AM, as I always do, and greeted the woman who was vacuuming the floor with a hearty "hello, Elsa." On this particular morning, I chose to address her by her first name rather than simply a greeting. While I had known her name for some time, I had not used it when saying "good morning." This choice was transformative in our relationship.
Elsa is a quiet woman who does not want to interfere, and we would always exchange pleasantries, but it ended there. On this particular morning, when I chose to address her by first name, she lingered. She asked if a photograph that I have in my office was, in fact, a picture of me. You see, the picture was taken 22 years ago, and the young man in the photo with his 6-year old twins is hardly recognizable as me! She said "goodbye" as she left my office.
Since then, our short time together in the morning is more conversational and relaxed. With this simple gesture, this simple choice to personalize my greeting, we broke down a barrier and connected, something that I should have recognized much earlier in our relationship.
So today, I want to talk about choice. We
love choice. We tend to equate choice with freedom and empowerment. We like to feel in control and to know our options.
Choice is important to us. We want to be able to choose what we eat, what time we go to bed, what we wear. In many ways, it is your job as teenagers to explore with choice, to push boundaries, to test. What do I wear to school every day? Can I get away with wearing my hat inside even when Mr. Burns reminds us not to? Can I wear my Patriots jersey after New England wins the Super Bowl – again. Last year, Kyle Gonyea made this choice after the Super Bowl, and he also chose to wear a necktie, which somehow validated his outfit in the eyes of his teachers.
But choice can also be very scary because we do not know the outcome of our choices. When we are wrestling with college choices, for example, we might wonder: What will it mean for my life if I choose to go to college in Connecticut rather than in Virginia?
Choices can be hard because choosing one option may close off other options, and we don't like to close off options. Also, choices invariably entail transition and change. When you make a decision, usually this has to do with your future and a change in the status quo, and that, too, is scary.
All of you, whether you are in the middle or upper school, have faced a multitude of choices this year, some seem life changing and others may appear less significant. How do you know what route to take? What should dictate your decision on these big potentially life-changing choices?
I would argue that the smaller day-to-day choices matter as much or maybe even more than the seemingly more significant ones. The small choices where one makes contact with another human being are the moments that endure. Choices where you have a conversation with someone even as you rush to hurry out the door, choices where you thank people for something they have done or when you choose to sit with someone at lunch who may be out of your friend group.
Or when you help your mom or dad with something even when you don't really feel like it. These small choices matter, and they shape who you are.
I would submit that when these small, positive choices turn into habits, you become gracious, and that is an attribute that is enduring and increasingly scarce in today's world. So, learn to be gracious – it is really a choice. Remember Armando Galarraga, the baseball player who exemplified the epitome of graciousness when the umpire erroneously deprived him of a perfect game.
Virginia Woolf explores the significance of these small moments in To the Lighthouse. Over half of the book tracks the characters' lives during a single day, and by including all of the small moments that happen in one's daily life, Woolf emphasizes the importance of what she calls "little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark." Woolf exposes choices that endure: a look, a moment with someone, a conversation, a meal.
As you go about your day, think of the many choices that you make. When you look carefully at all of these small moments and the choices that you made, I think that you will be struck by the enduring power of these "little miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark."